Posted Monday, Oct. 20, 2008, at 9:19 AM
"Jennifer" called into the NPR show
to describe a wonderful democratic experiment she and her husband were conducting at the business they own in North Carolina.
Their firm has about 100 workers, and she and her husband believe that "it's important for all of our employees to really be engaged and aware citizens." So Jennifer holds what she calls "lunch 'n' learns" throughout the year. Sometimes employees will lead discussions on issues over the noon hour. (Workers prepare presentations on, say, health care and then talk about the issue from several sides.) During elections, employees may bring in candidates, who are allowed to talk to employees who come to the sessions. No one is required to attend, but Jennifer said her workers like coming to the events.
"We find that when we have things fostered in a really disciplined but civil way, we get people feeling much better about talking about it," Jennifer said. "It doesn't become as heated, but people become educated and engaged."
Wonderful, right? Well, there was an employment attorney on the show who warned Jennifer to watch out. "If Jennifer was my client," said New Jersey lawyer Stacey Adams, "I would probably strongly advise her against doing what she's doing."
There are a "lot of potential problems, even if it's done during nonwork activities such as lunchtime," Adams continued. "I think that if one candidate endorses particular views which are deemed offensive to ... other employees, that could present a problem."
Welcome to America, where a lunchtime discussion of ideas among citizens who might have differing opinions "could present a problem."
Unfortunately, if people don't talk about politics at work, there are very few places left where they might have a face-to-face discussion with those who have a different opinion. Churches are now among the most politically segregated institutions in America. Neighborhoods have tipped either Republican or Democratic, and they have kept tipping as like-minded people have clustered. Even volunteer groups have grown more homogeneous.
Americans love to talk about politics. They just don't find many times when they talk about politics with those who have different political outlooks. (See Diana Mutz's fantastic book
for the details on our country's love of political conformity.) Educated people are particularly skilled at avoiding contrary opinions, according to Mutz, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She writes that Americans with less than a high-school diploma have the greatest diversity in political discussion mates. Those with the most narrow political lives are Americans who have suffered through graduate school.
Democracy is greased with tolerance and understanding, and those virtues are more abundant when people who disagree find themselves meeting regularly face-to-face. John Stuart Mill wrote in 1848, "It's hardly possible to overstate the value ... of placing human beings in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves, and with modes of thought and action unlike those with which they are familiar." It's hardly possible to overstate the rarity with which this kind of exchange happens in America.
There is one place in the social landscape where we are pushed into settings with a mixed political crowd. That's at work. "Of all the contexts with the potential for political interaction, the workplace currently has the greatest capacity for exposing people to political dialogue across lines of political difference,"
The workplace is one of the few settings where people of different political beliefs have to deal with each other, so workplaces are one of the last places where Americans are placed "in contact with other persons dissimilar to themselves." In North Carolina, Jennifer's lunch sessions are the kind of hard, day-to-day work of democratic life that most of us avoid.